ALF 06



I will talk about my research on controversies studies, as a research method and as an education of philosophy. I will also mention what kind of a new epistemology is opened for architecture by mapping of controversies.

Architectural theory has been puzzled for a long time by the big divide between architecture on one hand and the society on the other. Dissatisfied with the one-sided interpretations of buildings as static or technical objects only, architectural theory shifted its interests towards society. We are constantly reminded that built form relates to society and culture. To understand buildings and environments we must understand the society and culture in which they were produced. Here we are in the critical regime—in the regime of critical theory of architecture. Critical means to be attentive to the socio-technical contacts and the cultural/economic conditions of the projection of architectural knowledge. What is problematic with this framework? As a sociologist working on architecture and in the field of architectural study, I see a big problem in this divide—having architecture on one hand and society on the other. 

The problem is that as soon as we talk about this dichotomy, the modernist divide between context and content, between architecture as technology and architecture as symbolic social form, is maintained. My question is how can we circumvent the boundaries between context and content, between the abstraction called nature and the abstraction called culture? Between architecture’s technology and architecture’s symbolic form? How can we avoid the common simplifications of architectural theory, always tending to replace the specific—architectural practices, moves, processes, objects—with general categories—social factors, class, gender, matters of race, politics?

I want to suggest here, that there is another way of doing architectural research inspired by social sciences, one that relies on a radically different understanding of the social. The alternative to the critical reductivist approach is a pragmatist realist irreductivist approach. The pragmatist approach relies on the assumption that architecture cannot be reduced to anything. It is real on its own, it has its body, machines, technologies and groupings - no building can be defined outside of the process of its making, outside of the controversies it triggers. Design emerges in the same instance as its participants and its objects, it defines itself. Therefore we should follow the processes of making, using, contesting buildings. All the actors that take part in these processes, their statements, how they form alliances and create enemies, how they shape new associations. This will mean to follow them and visit all the places they had been to, all the difficulties they have had and all their concerns. If we follow the processes we rather gain access to the social and the architectural in their fluid states, we get a picture, in which we’ll be able to witness what architecture and society are made of, not take them for granted.

A pragmatist approach will require to account and understand, not replace design objects. It will mean to study the particular ways and actions, individual moves and collective groupings, through which architects shape buildings, gain design knowledge and produce new realities. To understand architecture we need to cross the sacred boundaries that separate architecture on the one hand and society on the other. And we need to cross them many times as we follow a contested architectural project or the design process. Only by engaging in ethnography of architecture would we be able to gain access to that particular moment when the divide between content and context, between technology and symbols and between society and architecture is  not yet made. A unique moment when both the architectural and the social are fluid. A unique moment in which all redistributions are possible.

I got interested in controversies in 2001, when I started working at the Office for Metropolitan Architecture in Rotterdam as an anthropologist-sociologist of architecture. I spent two years living in the office and watching architects at work, following the processes of making architecture. In order to grasp the general rules of design or the genuine OMA habits, I just wanted to be able to see the details of the day-to-day activities.

A pragmatist way to look at the architecture of Rem Koolhaas would aim to understand the practices rather than the theories and the ideologies, the actions rather than the discourses, architecture in the making rather than architecture made. That is the reason I engage in ethnography of design and follow designers at work. Just as how  the sociologist of science Bruno Latour followed the scientists at work in the 1970s to understand the production of scientific facts.

To understand the meaning of OMA buildings and Koolhaas's architecture, I needed to forget or at least to put on hold all the official interpretations of his work and to look instead at the ordinary conditions of experience, to follow the way architects make sense of their world-building activities, to look at the routines, the mistakes, the workday choices - all these minor transactions of the daily life of a designer that critical theorists consider as indecent to tackle. I also accounted for the cooperative activity of both, architect and the support personnel, humans and models, paints and pixels, material samples and plans, that all constitute the design world. I assume that design was accountable, it means, pragmatically knowable, not symbolic.

Whitney Museum of American Art in Manhattan

The first case study I worked on was the Whitney museum in Manhattan on Madison Avenue, between the 75th and the 74th streets. It was designed in 1966 by Marcel Breuer together with Hamilton Smith. The building had quite an unusual shape for New York. 20 years later, in 1982, another U.S. architect, Michael Graves, was commissioned to design an extension to  the Whitney museum. The extension was very controversial, he had to go back to the drawing board and design it again. The second project failed, then he went back to the drawing board again. There were three projects designed and they all failed. 20 years later, the same project enters the office of Rem Koolhaas, in 2001.

From an architectural point of view, extending this building is almost an impossible mission, because the building is surrounded by the brownstones from the beginning of the 20th century, which are protected buildings and you cannot demolish them. Basically the site is very small and there are a lot of restrictions. The solution of Koolhaas was to have a complex of three buildings (a brownstone building, the Breuer building and a new building) working together and connected by the old elevator in the Breuer building, which was meant to be the core, the machine connecting the three buildings. This project was stirred up much controversy  between 2001 and 2004, and failed. Koolhaas had to go back to the drawing board and design this second scheme, which again was very controversial and failed. Two years later another architect was commissioned to design the Whitney extension - Renzo Piano. He spent a year and a half on the project, the project again was very controversial and failed.

The questions I had, when I started looking at this project, was - what was so wrong with  the Whitney, that it provoked so many reactions at the time of its construction in the 1960s and then later on at the time of its extensions? What kind of actors responded to the museum actions and claimed to talk on its behalf?

Of course one way to answer those questions is to look at the context of the 1960s and then the context of the 1980s and the context of Koolhaas and Piano and to try and extract the Whitney meaning from the mythologies of these three social contexts. To explain the Whitney in terms of  of mainstream social sciences would mean to produce a social explanation of its architecture by simply referring to all those factors outside its architecture: social, cultural, political factors, the zeitgeist. While architecture projects develop according to their own competitive logics, they are often explained and associated to particular forces behind architecture.

Entering the office of Koolhaas to learn about the ongoing process of design, I was gradually led, together with the architects from OMA, to open the black box of design of Graves and go back to the 1980s, then open the black box of design of Breuer and go back to the 1960s, always coming back to the office of Koolhaas with some little knowledge in hand which was important for the design moves of Koolhaas. OMA architects found out by going back to history that the Whitney had this amazing trajectory, rich of controversies. To gain access to the repertoire of factions of the Breuer building and the Graves’ building, they studied the history to find out what the building did - how the building acted in the 1960s, in the 1980s and how many different actors reacted to the building’s moves and to the attempts to extend it, how various actors talked on behalf of the Whitney.

Thus instead of tracing a linear account of the Whitney's architecture from Bauhaus to Koolhaas, based on a comprehensive historical analysis of its past and engaging in a process of interpretation of Whitney, we were rather interested in its performance, in its career, in its particular building trajectory and the agency of the building. In order to understand the Whitney museum as an architectural object, we had to unravel this history of controversies.

As the controversies developed, I looked at the press clippings from the 1960s and also all archives of the museum of the 1980s and, of course, all the documents related to the project of Koolhaas. In the 1960s the Whitney is never on its own. As soon as the project started and the building was already under construction, different actors gathered around the building. Artists, the Whitney family, Breuer & Smith architects, the board of trustees, architecture critics, New Yorkers, gravitation laws and neighbors. In the 1980s, because there were three different projects, this controversy was defined as the biggest controversy in the galaxy of U.S. architecture, because it lasted nearly a decade. We can see that, as the controversy developed, a bigger number of actors and resources were mobilized and the new associations, new connections among those actors were traced. The more people spoke against and in support of the building, the bigger the crowds of visitors got, the more the resources and lies locally available increased, the more social the design became.

Following these controversies and the many detours the architects’ intentions took to extend the building, we do not see any longer just one static modernist object—a construction. We see an object, its anticipated extensions presented as design plans, a variety of actors gathering around the building, debating, criticizing it or expressing disagreement or agreement with the particular plans. That is how the Whitney becomes a multiple object, an assembly of contested issues: the brownstone's destructibility, the zoning filling, the neighbors’ vulnerability, the narrowness of the site. The Whitney that looked like a simple technical or aesthetic object, in the controversy became socio-technical, sociopolitical. Built once in the 1960s and completely forgotten, it became extendable. From taken for granted it became contested, from static—a bird in a flight. Not an autonomous emancipated coherent modernist object standing out there on Madison Avenue, but a complex ecology. Precisely because design and architecture are accountable, report-able, we cannot continue to argue any longer that buildings and architecture institutions are created  to combat the diffracted presence of society. There are no social dimensions or factors of any sort explaining the success and failure of architecture objects. Buildings are not projections of the social, but they could become social, because they possess an immense capacity of connecting heterogeneous actors. This particular capacity of a building to associate both human and non-human actors and in different periods of time, makes it an important social actor. Here is the social, in the process of mobilization and enrollment of different actors, explaining architecture, reflecting architecture rather than being outside of architecture.

We can argue that a building cannot be defined by what it is and what it means, but only by what it does, what kind of disputes it provokes and how it resists to intensify transformation in different periods of time. Such an understanding of buildings, I believe, can bring more awareness to  the ways architecture is made and how it takes part in the making of the social.

London Olympics stadium

My second example is regarding the controversies surrounding the London Olympics stadium design. Controversy for me is a synonym of architecture in the making. In 2012, London was the center of world attention as it was to hold the 30th summer Olympic games. More attention was drawn to the athletics stadium. How can we expect the design of such an important building to be met without resistance? A building, that once built on site would trigger the entire transformation of east London, would modify the mayoral politics, would raise the greenhouse gas emissions, and would impact the residents’ lives and health. It becomes crucial to find out new ways to navigate through the controversial sets of opinions and map this controversy.

The existing representational tools, however, are not powerful enough to represent what was going on in London. The interpretations revolved around either the social issues and redevelopment plans for the Lea Valley in East London, other interpretations are made about the urban regeneration and rebranding strategies of the Olympics. The role of the Olympics for urban governance was discussed, different attempts to measure the tangible and intangible impacts from hosting the Olympics in London were evaluated. To understand the entire magnitude of the design related transformations at stake, these interpretations are not sufficient. We need instead to map the entire complexity of the debate, we need to follow the controversy. By following the controversy, we base our knowledge about the controversy upon its manifestation in the media, in publicly available documents on the websites of official organizations.

First we follow and enlist the whole range of actors concerned by the controversial design, whether they be architects, communities, costs, stadium design precedents or existing buildings, area regeneration prospects or legacy scenarios. With the generic term actor we designate all beings enrolled in the controversy. Then we map the actors’ main statements and trace the thick mesh of relations among the statements circulating in a dispute. Finally, we visualize the networks of the actors, where they always appear as interfaces of connections. Such mapping covers the research that enables us to describe the successive stages in the production of architectural knowledge. By mapping controversies, we also refer to a variety of new representational techniques and tools that permit us to describe the successive stages of controversies. For instance, mapping the Olympic stadium controversy allows us to gain access to not yet stabilized states of the urban and the social. When I say mapping, I mean mapping not as a mimetic tool, but as a navigational tool. To map a social phenomenon is not only to represent it, but also to make sense of it.

First we started a collaboration with experts in parametrics and then with computational designers. The main question we had in mind was how we could visualize these networks more efficiently to avoid the traditional separations between actors and networks, between individual and society. How can we overcome this kind of static dimension of the network visualizations?

Drawing on the expertise of a parametric designer, we produced visualization of the London Olympics stadium design controversy which is an animation, a dynamic visualization. We wanted to have something different, something that will account for this unpredictable aspect of the networks. We collaborated with the R&D department of London-based company AEDAS, led by Christian Derix. The visualization of the controversy allows us to follow assembly of heterogeneous actors, their different groupings and re-groupings; we can also explore the relative importance and weight of the different actors and how they position themselves according to different concerns. The main concerns in the story are: legacy, cost and sustainability. This simulation allows us to have a dynamic, concern oriented controversy mapping and it also shows for the first time a visualization in which the actors are not drawn as colored dots or squares. It means the actors do not have an identity before they enter the controversy, but they gain their identity in the controversy as they connect. To the extent that even Boris Johnson is not the mayor of London when he enters this controversy, he becomes an actor because he connects to more and more actors and because he connects he is an actor in this controversy. It became a database as well: you can go back to the particular initial sources of the debate and read particular articles, if you want to follow more closely the trajectory of a particular actor in this debate.


The dynamic network mapping captures occurrences, events and situations that make the social traceable, graspable. Taking further inspiration from architectural computing, learning from its specific epistemology will allow us to develop a new take on social phenomena. It is impossible to grasp a building at once. It has temporal qualities, analyzing it as an immutable entity, would provide a perfect reductio ad absurdum of the separation of time and space in architecture.

Following the making of, following the processes around buildings, this approach allows documentation of the continuous flow that a building always is. To grasp it as a movement, as a flight, as a series of transformations. Instead of seeing how a building occupies a particular niche inside a society or corresponds to certain economic or cultural needs, the mapping controversies method allows grasping the capacity of buildings and design projects to elaborate around themselves, their times and their spaces and even societies of interested parties. Following how a controversy unfolds in time and space would permit us to do with buildings and design projects something akin to what Henri Bergson has done in the philosophy of process. Thank you for your attention.